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For Seymour, Race Ended Before He Found His Stride : Defeat: Appointed senator started out behind and never got close. But allies predict he’ll be back.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

By the time a dejected John Seymour conceded defeat to Dianne Feinstein late Tuesday and made the long walk through a gantlet of reporters into private life, the longtime Orange County politician was talking about public office in the past tense.

“Oh, there are a lot of exciting things to do,” he said about his future plans. “I had a life before politics. I was in business for 17 years and now I’ve had a very successful career in politics.

“Maybe I’ll do some teaching.”

Yet some who know Seymour doubt that he will be able to stay in an ivory tower for long.

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“John isn’t going to bow out,” said state Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach), a longtime colleague in the Orange County legislative delegation in Sacramento. “He loves politics. It’s in his blood and, whatever transfusion happens, I’m sure the blood level will remain high.”

Both Bergeson and Orange County political consultant Eileen Padberg, who ran Seymour’s unsuccessful lieutenant governor’s campaign, said it would be no surprise if Seymour was offered a position by Gov. Pete Wilson, a personal friend and political mentor. The two became friends during the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Wilson was mayor of San Diego and Seymour was mayor of Anaheim.

As it happens, Wilson is looking for someone to fill a newly created cabinet post: secretary of trade and commerce, a $91,000-a-year position responsible for economic development and foreign trade. The secretary will run the Department of Commerce, the World Trade Commission and five overseas offices promoting California’s exports and the state as a place to do business.

At a press conference Wednesday, Wilson certainly did not rule out the possibility. When asked if he would offer Seymour a job, Wilson said: “I have not done so yet. I don’t know if he is interested in that.”

Padberg said that barring some gubernatorial appointment, Seymour, who made his money in Orange County real estate, might go back into business for himself, or take a position as a spokesman for an organization such as the National Assn. of Realtors.

“He’s such a hard worker and a tenacious person that, you know, any position that he takes will be a position for someone who needs to be a problem-solver,” Padberg said.

Whatever the future holds for Seymour over the long term, Padberg and Bergeson agreed that he is in for a near-term emotional letdown. Making the transition from public to private life is always a difficult proposition for a politician, especially one who has been in office as long and campaigns as hard as Seymour.

But in Seymour’s case, the transition will be especially tough because he must slide into private life after serving in the U.S. Senate, which Bergeson described as the “pinnacle of opportunity” for any politician.

“It’s got to be one of the bitter pills you have to swallow; having tasted that for a short period and found it extremely satisfying, and then find the opportunity is taken away from you, I don’t think that’s easy,” Bergeson said.

Tuesday’s loss is the second statewide political defeat since 1990 for Seymour, who has held local, state and federal elective office since 1974.

Both losses have come at the hands of women, one of whom agreed that Seymour is a high-profile casualty to the rising fortunes of female candidates.

“Women reflect change,” said Bergeson, who beat Seymour for the 1990 Republican nomination for lieutenant governor. “People are turned off with a lot of the rhetoric, the perception that the good old boys have things under control. Women represent . . . a feeling of ethical conduct, real or perceived.”

After his loss to Bergeson, Seymour readily admitted that he was hampered by his reluctance to beat up on a woman candidate. As a result, the no-holds-barred campaigner immediately found himself on the defensive over charges that he was a flip-flopper, especially for changing his position from anti-abortion to pro-choice.

In the campaign against Feinstein, however, Seymour showed no reluctance to attack. He questioned her ethics based on a Fair Political Practices Commission lawsuit alleging massive campaign reporting violations during her unsuccessful 1990 gubernatorial bid, and he blasted the former San Francisco mayor as a coddler of criminals for her votes on the parole board during the 1960s.

Yet Seymour’s tactics failed to draw blood from a female candidate whose name identification among California voters is extremely high.

Meanwhile, Seymour himself remained largely unknown. While Feinstein had come off an unsuccessful 1990 gubernatorial campaign with a voter recognition level of 90%, Seymour told reporters Tuesday night that his was 38% when the race began.

Less than a month ago, surveys showed that he was unable to change that much. An estimated 51% of California voters said they didn’t know much about the Orange County politician even after he had served 21 months in the U.S. Senate. Throughout the race to keep his incumbency, Seymour consistently trailed Feinstein in the polls by double digits.

Seymour’s appointment to the Senate by Wilson in 1991 was the crowning achievement in a business and political career that first took hold in the fertile field of Orange County’s real estate market in 1964, when Seymour founded his brokerage firm with a $10,000 bank loan co-signed by his father.

Over 17 years he described as brimming with “blood, sweat and tears,” Seymour built a brokerage and escrow company that operated at a frenetic pace. It handled hundreds of small deals at the same time Seymour personally bought and sold property in his own name.

Seymour’s business accomplishments gave rise years later to the widespread belief that he had become a millionaire by the age of 30--a myth that even Wilson repeated last year. In fact, court records show Seymour was far from rich at 30, or even when he divorced his first wife at the age of 34.

What is no myth is how Seymour’s contacts in real estate helped launch a political career that began with appointment to the Anaheim Planning Commission in 1970, followed by election to the City Council in 1974. He became mayor in 1978 and was instrumental in a stunning coup for Orange County: luring the Los Angeles Rams to Anaheim Stadium.

Over time, the worlds of real estate and politics seemed to converge for the energetic Seymour, especially after he was elected to head up a statewide real estate organization.

“I was expanding my business, running for reelection as mayor of the city of Anaheim and serving as president of the California Assn. of Realtors,” Seymour said in a Times 1991 interview. “Through this evolvement, almost unintentionally, I had become almost half-businessman and half-public servant.”

In 1981, Seymour made his choice. He sold his company, relieving himself of the daily operations, but keeping a 20% stake. The next year, he was elected to the state Senate.

Shortly after his arrival in Sacramento, he drew criticism for casting the deciding vote on a bill that stripped local governments of their control over “safe and sane” fireworks. As mayor of Anaheim, Seymour had been a proponent of local control over such fireworks.

Seymour cast his vote a month after taking a $2,000 contribution from Orange County fireworks manufacturer W. Patrick Moriarty, who had pushed for the controversial bill. Seymour went on to take another $4,500 in 1983 from Moriarty, who was later convicted and jailed on charges that included laundering campaign contributions to several California officeholders. Seymour was never charged with wrongdoing in the case and Moriarty was released from prison after most of the criminal charges were overturned.

During his tenure in the Legislature, Seymour became such an advocate of the development and real estate industry that he would later refer to himself as the “realtors’ senator.” A landlord himself, he introduced unsuccessful measures to weaken local rent control ordinances. He carried the legislation granting authority for the three Orange County toll roads. He also formed a legislative expertise in drug abuse prevention.

After he lost his bid for lieutenant governor to Bergeson in 1990, Seymour’s career appeared to have fizzled. Then, mentor Wilson shocked political circles by choosing Seymour as his replacement in the U.S. Senate.

In naming his Orange County ally, Wilson said he made the choice, in part, because Seymour is an indefatigable campaigner and an able fund-raiser--two necessary virtues if Republicans were to hang onto the “short” seat, as the abbreviated, two-year Senate term came to be commonly known. Seymour would have had to win election twice--once in 1992 and again in 1994--before enjoying a full six-year term.

As he went to Capitol Hill, Seymour conceded that campaigning alone wouldn’t provide his return ticket to the august body.

“What’s going to do it is that John Seymour has got to perform, and he’s got to make his mark very quickly,” he said at the time.

It didn’t happen. A Republican with no seniority in the Democrat-dominated Senate, Seymour found it difficult to make any mark. He hung so close to President Bush during a post-riot tour of Los Angeles that White House insiders tagged him the “Velcro senator.”

Others referred him as the “roadblock senator” for spending most of his time in Washington blocking two environmental bills--one protecting 4.8 million acres in the California desert from mining, off-road vehicles and grazing; and the other making historic changes in water allocations from the Central Valley Project. Seymour said he opposed the measures because they would eliminate jobs.

Seymour was successful in killing the desert measure, but lost his recent dramatic--and headline-grabbing--attempt to block the CVP reforms, now signed into law by President Bush, which take some water away from farmers for urban areas and to restore environmentally damaged rivers and wetlands. Seymour tried to stage a filibuster as the Senate was poised to adjourn last month, but was forced to concede defeat.

Tuesday’s political defeat, say friends and colleagues, will be a setback but won’t ruin Seymour.

“Everybody’s subjected to disappointments,” Bergeson said. “But John’s a survivor. He’ll weather it. He’ll pick up his briefcase and go on.”

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